Kutch/ Kuchchh/ Kachchh

Bounded on its north and east by marshy salt flats and desert scrub known as the Greater and Little Ranns, and on the southwest by the Gulf of Kutch and the Arabian Sea, the province of Kutch is a distinct realm in every sense, and the most worthwhile expedition in Gujarat. Arguably closer to Pakistan and its pre-Partition Sind populace, the landscapes alone are beautiful if you like arid, barren, bleak vistas: Northern Kutch or the Banni area is semidesert with no perennial rivers and dry, acacia thorn scrub -- in stark contrast is the color used and displayed by its local tribes who rely on livestock and the sale of their distinctive handicraft and art. With some research and preparation (read Judy Frater's excellent book Threads of Identity, Mapin Publishing, 1995) meeting and trading with the local inhabitants could very well be the most memorable and inspiring part of your visit to India.

Note: You will need a permit to visit the villages north of Bhuj and although this is easy to arrange, and is free, it takes a little time and patience. Take an extra photograph and a copy of your passport and visa (including the originals) and present yourself to the District Superintendents Office (11am-2pm, 3-6pm Mon-Sat), complete the form naming the villages you need to visit, get it stamped, and be on your way.

Bhuj & Environs

The dusty, baking-hot capital of Kutch is slowly being reconstructed after the devastating 2001 earthquake that killed over 10% of the city's 150,000 people. To be honest, it's a pit, and really only good to get your permit to visit the villages, or to purchase crafts and textiles (if you have not already done so from the creators themselves up in the Rann for half the price). With no sites or attractive accommodations you'd be far better placed closer to the ethnic villages -- the real reason you are in Kutch. If you really have to sleep here, there is only one option worth considering: the new Hotel Ilark (tel. 02832/258999; www.hotelilark.com; super deluxe rooms Rs 3,500) on Station Road, recently built by a wealthy businessman in the construction industry and by far the best place in town.

The easiest way to get to Bhuj is to fly. Jet Airways have daily flights to and from Mumbai. You can book at their offices near Bank of Baroda on Station Road tel. 02832/253671) or at the airport (tel. 02832/244101). You can also take a train directly to or from Ahmedabad: catch the 9116 Nagari Express, which departs 10:30pm and arrives 5:15am, or the 9032 Kutch Express (departs 8pm arrives 2:45am), before continuing on to Mumbai (11:45am). (No one is advised to take buses here; as stated you will need your own driver and vehicle.)

A raised, newly resurfaced tar road leads north of Bhuj to the Banni Villages and the craft hubs of Hodka, Dhordo, and Khavda, where decorated mud thatch-roofed huts (liponkan) form the stop-off for your meeting with traditional Rabari and Ahir cultures, and an opportunity to inspect their handiwork and wares. These tiny clay villages are all gathered close together (about 40 min. or so apart) and depending on where you are based, either at Shaam-e- Sarhand or Infinity Resort, it will take you not less than 2 hours to reach the closest village. Our advice is therefore to set out very early and reach the farthest village of Khavda first, then work back down to your base. Tip: Ask your hosts to provide a packed lunch or at least some snacks and take plenty of chilled water, preferably in an ice chest.

Ludia is another good stop to meet the locals and inspect the work, and is your second visit after Khavda if working back down. Take your time doing this and be patient. The traditional dress is arresting and their cholis (backless blouses) will have you literally asking for the shirts off their backs. The mood is relaxed and there is very little pressure to buy, so take your time and do not be shy to have a good look at all the work. It may seem like a lot of effort to unpack but try to see it as an education and there is no reason not to have a healthy interaction without buying. We did however encounter a certain surliness when we didn't buy from a woman in Hodka, who apparently is famous in Paris with the French media. Beautiful embroidery can be found at Bhirendiara, just a 20-minute drive south of Ludia, and stop at the famous NGO Kala Raksha (tel. 02808/277238; www.kala-raksha.org) that provides a fixed-price outlet, small museum, and workshop.

Covering 4,851 sq. km (1,873 sq. miles), the Little Rann, to the east of The Greater Rann is a vast, salt-encrusted desert plain that becomes a marsh during the monsoon rains. It is home to nine nomadic communities -- the Mir, Kharapat Rabhari's, Bharawads, Bajania, Kholi, Patels, Padhars, Jats, and Wadi's (the latter incidentally known as snake charmers) -- as well as the endangered wild ass, a petite tan and chestnut relative of the horse that consistently bucks the locals' repeated attempts at cross breeding (and refuses to pose for pictures!).

Where To Stay & Dine

Less than 32km (20 miles) north of Bhuj, Hodka is an obligatory stop and the Shaam-e-Sarhand Rural Resort (tel. 02832/654124; www.hodka.in), a successful sustainable eco-tourism project run by the local Halepotra tribe, is located here. It is indeed rural, offering rustic accommodation in mud huts or bhungas (Rs 2,500), or six luxury tents with private bathrooms (Rs 4,000), which are far more comfortable, although if you'd like to live as the locals do, then try a night in a bhunga. While it is very basic, this "Sunset at the Border" is an authentic homegrown project that is run by the people for the people and will give you not only the proximity you need to the local villages but also the insight to witness the daily lives of a local Kutchi community at work. The most comfortable place for an overnight stay in this area, although a little off the beaten track, is the Infinity Rann of Kutch Resort (tel. 02835/273431/2; www.campsofindia.com; kutch@campsofindia.com) located at Chari Fulay, Nakhatrana, 60km (37 miles) from Bhuj. With 16 luxury, A/C, tented en-suite cottages set around a green lawn and a large blue pool, it is an ideal base for comfortable accommodation into the Banni area of the Greater Rann.

The only place to stay and the real reason for visiting the Little Rann is the eco-friendly Rann Riders, based just outside the charming little village of Dasada and a stone's throw from the Little Rann. The passionate and erudite owner, Mr. Muzahid Malik, a veritable mine of information on the area, together with his helpful and welcoming team, will attend to your every need. With the amazing activities and outings available (such as overnighting in the Little Rann on a camel cart), your experience here will be memorable. The pretty resort contains 22 deluxe suites in cottages resembling the kooba houses of the Bajania community of Dasada, and the bhunga houses of the Kutchi Rabari's. Moreover, they are all designed using locals materials and labor, tastefully decorated and set amid a lush flowering indigenous garden with a newly renovated infinity pool. Gardens produce organic food (grown out back) and the kitchen serves good local and Continental cuisine. Mr. Malik's family has deep local roots, a committed passion for the area, and a real understanding of international tourism and its demands -- all rare commodities in Gujarat.

Rare Gifts North of Bhuj

Working out of Sumrasar Sheikh, 25km (16 miles) north of Bhuj, the Kala Raksha Trust (10am-2pm, 3-6pm; tel. 02808/277238; www.kala-raksha.org) is an authentic and successful grassroots social initiative dedicated to the preservation of traditional arts. The trust has a small museum displaying works by over 800 artists from seven different communities and can arrange visits to villages to meet with the artists. There are some magnificent pieces on sale, of which a substantial proportion goes to the artists who also help price the works. Aside from learning about the various crafts and styles, you can ask to be taken for a village tour where you can observe the women meticulously plying their craft in embroidery, dyeing and patchwork techniques. Another excellent local cooperative is Shrujan, in Bhujodi, 12km (7 1/2 miles) north of Bhuj, which also works with a network of 80-plus villages and has some excellent pieces. If your interest extends beyond the ordinary, contact Judy Frater while in Bhuj. She is a specialist in textiles on the local ethnic tribal cultures and communities, has lived with and studied them for many years and is author of the informative book Threads of Identity, Embroidery and Adornment of the Nomadic Rabaris (Mapin Publishing, 1995). She can be contacted at judy@kala-raksha.org for specialist tours or can be arranged by Mr. Malik at Rann Riders.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.